WASHINGTON – The Bush administration defended itself Monday against congressional charges that it is not doing enough for thousands of Iraqi refugees, including many who are at great risk because of their service to the American-led coalition in Iraq.
Ellen Sauerbrey, who heads the State Department's refugee affairs bureau, said the administration is taking steps to accelerate admissions of Iraqi refugees to the United States.
But security requirements imposed after the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks that govern refugee admission has slowed the process considerably, she said.
"Security clearances take an extreme amount of time," said Sauerbrey, testifying before a House Foreign Affairs subcommittee on the Middle East.
Subcommittee chairman Gary Ackerman, D-N.Y., said the number of Iraqi refugees admitted to the United States is "paltry," particularly compared with the 180,000 Vietnamese refugees who were granted U.S. admission during the first eight months after the fall of the Saigon government in 1975.
Sauerbrey said 692 Iraqis have resettled in the United States since the collapse of Saddam Hussein's regime in April 2003.
But, she said, the U.S. focus during the first three years of the post-Saddam era was almost entirely on enabling Iraqi refugees to return to their homes. It has only been over the past year, with the sharp increase in sectarian violence, that the priority has shifted to resettlement in the United States. The bulk of fleeing Iraqis has taken refuge in Jordan and Syria.
"We have acted aggressively to expand our ability to offer more Iraqis refuge in the United States during 2007," she said. She was unable to offer a precise figure on prospective admissions.
But Ackerman said the administration has been moving too slowly.
"We have left thousands of Iraqis, high and dry, desperate and deserted," he said. "These people are now in flight because of our own failure."
He said he is planning to introduce legislation to provide safe resettlement in the United States for Iraqis who face persecution or who had put their trust in the U.S.
Rep. Mike Pence, R-Ind., expressed particular concern about the fate of Iraqi Christians.